McAdams On: Spectrum Wars Episode II-Google Strikes Again, August 19, 2011

TATOOINE: The battle for world domination of the airwaves intensified this week with Google’s entrée into the hardware business and Sprint’s possible bid for Clearwire.

After releasing its mobile operating system into the market and letting handset manufacturers do all the hardware heavy lifting-- Google buys Motorola Mobility after just in time for broadcast TV white spaces to open up. Sweet. Remember that Google’s Android was developed as a white-space platform. And while it was launched as an open-source code, the very smart folks at ars technica say Google has its own proprietary version.

This would allow Google to organize and develop its own app market, which now suffers functionality fragmentation from too many hardware types. To wit, Google last month announced it was winding down it Labs project and devoting those resources to other product areas--namely, the Android Market.

The combined control of an operating system, device design and app market makes Google, Apple, except with absolutely free and mostly unregulated use of the spectrum. Regulations and the usual politics of business are but a meager grain of cosmic dust pinging off the titanium spacecraft that is Google’s operational strategy.

While Google is suiting up to kick Apple’s apps, we have reports of Sprint and a consortium of cable companies going after the chunk of Clearwire that Sprint doesn’t own. Sprint is trying to stay relevant in the face of an AT&T and T-Mobile merger, and the continued deployment by Verizon of 4G LTE technology—super-fast wireless broadband for the uninitiated. Clearwire’s version of 4G wireless broadband--WiMax--is no match for LTE, according to Computer World, and the carrier has run out of cash to continue building out.

Meanwhile, Sprint cut a deal with LightSquared, the start-up poised to launch a hybrid satellite-terrestrial 4G LTE broadband network. A Sprint-Clearwire-LightSquared consortium would control possibly the biggest chunk of spectrum of any commercial enterprise and have the capability to launch a global network. That’s assuming LightSquared can get regulatory approval despite rabid opposition from the GPS industry and its millions of users.

These Wagnerian events in the wireless world illustrate some key dynamics. A) The shortage is cash, not spectrum. Clearwire has plenty of spectrum, but not enough money to complete the infrastructure necessary to make it a subscription cash cow. That’s because, B) technologies are evolving faster than networks can be constructed. Clearwire put its chips on WiMax before discovering LTE would be the mobile broadband standard du jour. Probably literally. E.g., still waiting for FiOS? Too bad. C) is the wild card known as “Google.”

Google was an early proponent of opening up fallow broadcast TV channels—white spaces--for use by unlicensed devices. Sufficient progress has been made to do so that Google-owned Moto Droids should hit the market just in time for white-space deployment. If the Obama Administration prevails and the current Federal Communications Commission chief doesn’t irritate key lawmakers to the point of alienation, unlicensed devices will launch right about the time broadcast TV spectrum is being put up for incentive auctions. When do you suppose the lobbying will begin to designate the relinquished TV spectrum for unlicensed use?

Let’s set our watches.
~ Deborah D. McAdams